Do you have an entrepreneurial spirit? Are you committed to solving a particular problem? Do you have an idea that will change the world? Each year, tens of thousands of new nonprofits and social enterprises are launched, each working to tackle a social problem in a new way, or with a more effective approach than previously existing organizations. Before you consider joining their ranks, ask yourself these very important questions.
1: Is anyone else already doing this?
We can’t emphasize this enough. Do your research! Chances are, if you’ve identified a problem, someone else is already working on tackling it. You might feel that the more people working on this issue, the better, right? But consider the fact that you’d be adding to the number of distinct groups competing for the same limited resources. You might consider what you can do to support them, rather than compete. And if you do believe that you’ve identified a better approach, you can still learn from others who have been working in this field.
2: Do I want to start something or do I want to start this?
There’s a difference. If your passion is for starting something, consider looking at existing models and seeing what you can replicate in your community or in a new context. You’ll get the benefit of the wisdom of those who’ve gone before you, you can build on any existing buzz, and you may have access to connections you might otherwise not have even known about. Some great places to look for ideas include GOOD, Dowser, the Eco & Sustainability and Social Cause sections of Springwise, and Fast Company’s Co.EXIST.
If you’re fully invested in your particular idea, then figure out how you can test your model before you go full steam ahead. Can you do a small pilot program or launch a beta product? Can you research comparable programs to add validity to your theory that this is an idea with great potential?
3: Is this a nonprofit or a social enterprise?
Nonprofits have a social mission, while social enterprises have both a social mission and a profit-driven mission. This does not mean that nonprofits can’t earn revenue (Idealist.org is an example of a nonprofit that has an earned income stream—our U.S. job postings—but the profits go directly back into running the organization).
There are advantages and disadvantages to each model. You’ll want to consider all of your options (which might also include being fiscally sponsored by another organization, or creating a hybrid model) before moving forward. For more on this, check out our review of the social-change landscape.
4: Who can help me?
Anyone starting a new organization is going to need lots of support. You’ll want to practice sharing your idea with people in your network, and asking for introductions to new people who can help you. Create a map of your connections, their connections, and any desired connections that you don’t yet have access to. You may also want to keep a list of the different kinds of support you’ll need, so that you can have it readily available when an opportunity arises. Eventually you’ll create a formal advisory board, but while you’re getting started, it’s nice to have an informal group of people who have agreed to advise you in different areas: fundraising, technology, program development, etc.
5: Am I ready for my life to change?
Starting an organization is no joke, and it’s about to get real. Say goodbye to your evenings and weekends, and get ready for an uphill battle. You’ll have to ask for money, perhaps more often than you’re comfortable with, you’ll have to be the public face of your new organization, and you may have to wait a long time before you’re successful by most measures. It takes grit, determination, and a great deal of sacrifice. Are you up for it?
Don’t be discouraged by this list. If you have a great idea for solving a pressing problem, then the world needs you to do everything you can to realize that idea. But thinking through all of the above before you begin is absolutely critical to doing it right. Good luck!
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